The Tampa Bay Lightning have signed their last key restricted free agent, inking Anthony Cirelli to a three-year contract. The deal will carry an average annual value of $4.8MM and keeps Cirelli under contract through the 2022-23 season. Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic tweets out the full details, noting that it is the exact same deal that Mikhail Sergachev signed earlier this offseason:
- 2020-21: $900K salary + $1.5MM signing bonus
- 2021-22 $3.3MM salary + $1.5MM signing bonus
- 2022-23: $7.2MM salary
When the Lightning walked to the podium to select Cirelli in the middle of the third round back in 2015, they never could have imagined what he would turn into five years later. At that point, he had only one year of OHL hockey under his belt, and though the Oshawa Generals were successful, he certainly wasn’t the one most fans were watching. Michael Dal Colle, the fifth-overall pick from 2014 was on that team and led the Generals all the way to the Memorial Cup, scoring 31 points in 21 playoff games. Cirelli scored only two goals in the playoffs for Oshawa, but he was already showing the elite work ethic and defensive ability that would become his calling card.
When Dal Colle was traded to the Kingston Frontenacs partway through the 2015-16 season, it was Cirelli who took over the captain’s “C” for Oshawa. He would also get his first taste of AHL action at the end of that season, suiting up three times for the Syracuse Crunch. Cirelli would then go on to win another OHL Championship and a World Junior silver medal in 2016-17, never losing that shutdown defensive mindset in the process.
Now, just two full seasons into his NHL career, everything he did for Oshawa (and Erie, and then Syracuse) he is doing for the Lightning. The 23-year-old center is one of the very best defensive players in the entire league, allowing almost no production from opponents when he is on the ice. He’s married that defensive acumen with improving offensive ability that resulted in 44 points in 68 games this season. Though his offense took a backseat to the superstar forwards on Tampa Bay in the playoffs, there’s little doubt how valuable Cirelli is to the team.
At a $4.8MM cap hit, he’ll continue to be a key part of the team’s lineup for the next three years. That number already likely doesn’t live up to the value Cirelli brings and if his development continues it could be a laughably low amount very soon. The bridge deal will also leave him as a restricted free agent one last time, meaning the Lightning will have a chance to ink a big, long-term deal with Cirelli in 2023.
How can they fit another high cap hit in? Nikita Kucherov’s injury is providing some relief, but this number is high enough that the Lightning will likely need to make another move before the season begins. CapFriendly tweeted out several explanations of how they’re even allowed to file a contract like this, which takes Tampa Bay nearly $12MM over the cap ceiling for the time being. Their projected cap hit is nearly $2.2MM over the $91MM that the team will be allowed to build assuming Kucherov goes on long-term injured reserve, meaning either some creative moves or a trade will be necessary in the coming weeks.
Still, even if it costs the Lightning one of their other bloated contracts, getting Cirelli locked up at a reasonable number is some strong work from GM Julien BriseBois. The team’s younger core of Kucherov, Cirelli, Sergachev, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy are now all locked in for at least the next two seasons, with the veteran stars—including Victor Hedman, who only turned 30 a few days ago—all still on workable numbers.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images